Monday, November 27, 2006

Swift stroke

During our long newspaper war in Anchorage, I became an aficionado of military maxims. There is nobody better than the colonial naval hero John Paul Jones.

Here's one (with my emphasis added):

The rules of conduct, the maxims of actions, and the tactical instincts that serve to gain small victories may always be expanded into the winning of great ones with suitable opportunity; because in human affairs the sources of success are ever to be found in the fountains of quick resolve and swift stroke; and it seems to be a law inflexible and inexorable that he who will not risk cannot win.

And my favorite:

I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way.

–Howard Weaver
Bloated and oblivious

Here's a perspective you don't read much in your MSM publications: the view that the L.A. Times newsroom is, indeed, "bloated and chronically oblivious to the needs of its customers."

Philip Terzian is books and arts editor at The Weekly Standard, a one-time L.A. Times reporter and (on the evidence of this one column) a political conservative who's right at home in that publication; his analysis is worth your consideration independently of its modest political slant. He's named some issues that too often go unspoken in these debates, and God knows we need to be as clearheaded and agnostic as possible in searching for solutions.

Here's an observation that belongs on your radar in pondering the future:

A half-century after the death of afternoon newspapers, and one decade into the Internet, we may locate the future of daily print journalism roughly halfway between the Times and the Tribune: leaner products, appealing to older, more affluent readers, emphasizing local news but with quality national and foreign coverage, and culture and features, to prevent a wholesale exodus to the Internet.

And here's another, somewhat more acerbic sample:

... while it may be poignant to read about the editor of the Times standing up to those profit-minded meanies in Chicago, the Tribune Company is on to something. If the long-term survival of newspapers is at stake, it will not be secured by fat and happy newsrooms, or writers and editors incessantly addressing themselves to other writers and editors.
–Howard Weaver

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Why this matters

Caught up in the sturm und drang of contemporary newspaper economics, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger issues at play in our struggle.

Here's an example: the inventor of the World Wide Web is worried nowadays about the "bad things" that could emerge as misinformation and "undemocratic forces" multiple on the net.

Says Tim Berners-Lee:

If we don't have the ability to understand the web as it's now emerging, we will end up with things that are very bad … Certain undemocratic things could emerge and misinformation will start spreading over the web.

Well, no shit.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Great Britain, a Guardian journalist writes of the despair he feels about the deepening pool of conspiracy and irrationality he encounters on the internet (and elsewhere in daily life.) In concluding that "We rationalists are the oppressed minority," he describes having posted on a website that argues Bush and Zionists were behind the 9-11 attacks:

I feel battered by the relentlessness of their insults. "I'm not going back there again. Horrible, patronising, codeword-using anti-semitic bastards," I eventually think. "They're so irrational. They sit behind their computers all day, pontificating away, getting their 'facts' from YouTube. They probably all look like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons."

It's a peculiar post and I can't tell where the columnist is headed, but his central point is plain to any of us who has been flamed for an editor's blog entry, cursed on the phone by a pro-or-anti abortion crusader or backed into a corner at some cocktail party by a conspiracy theorist.

His solution is public assertion of rationality (apparently extending all the way to militant atheism). Mine is to cling ever-more tenaciously to the principles of journalism that have animated our profession.

We're in the verification business. What we do is so much more important than simply passing along information or factoids. Go back and reread Jack Fuller's description of "the truth discipline" in News Values. What we do isn't the same as what people do in chat rooms, or on most opinion blogs.

What we do matters. And that's why it's worth all our best efforts to keep doing it, even in hard times like these.
–Howard Weaver

(For more on the question of conspiracy in public affairs, see the post that provoked this at SacredFacts, a blog by Richard Sambrook of the BBC.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Somes answers from
the Strib's 'Big Question'

The Star Tribune's innovative combination of blogging and reporting (called "The Big Question") has been focused on the campaign in recent weeks. Today writer Eric Black explains how he plans to extend the feature beyond elections and campaigns.

I think Eric and editors at the Strib are onto something here. Eric serves as a hybrid journalist, factchecker, referee and guide. He explores public debate and discussion from a disinterested but never uninteresting perspective.

You might want to check in on the blog from time to time here. Here's where Eric says it's headed next:

The plan for the moment for taking the Big Question into the post-campaign future includes continuing to do “Is That a Fact?” pieces, only now they won’t be just about campaign ads, plus the new “Verbatim” feature, and one I’m calling “Are You Sure?,” a critical thinking exercise about gaps between the conventional wisdom and the evidence that should support it.

For my next trick, I’m hereby inaugurating “Do You Believe in Logic?” (yes, it is a reference to the Lovin’ Spoonful song, if you don’t get it, ask your parents). If it works, this will be an effort to scrutinize the logic, and not just the accuracy, of public discourse.

–Howard Weaver

Don't bet against
the internet

It won't surprise you to hear Google's CEO holding forth on the importance and potential of the internet. (Their stock just passed $500 a share; maybe they're onto something there).

One of his most interesting observations is about how the internet is far more than a ubiquitous delivery system; it's also making fundamental changes in how we live.

I know this is true for me. I keep reminders of things like locker combinations by sending myself Gmail, which I can then retreive and search for nearly anywhere; I have a cool Verizon EVDO modem that lets me look for the nearest Home Depot while Barb drives around in circles; I get a lot of my news from my 60-something feeds at Google Reader.

I'm not going back.

Google's Eric Schmidt, from the article (emphasis added):

But what’s surprising is that so many companies are still betting against the net, trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. The past few years have taught us that business models based on controlling consumers or content don’t work. Betting against the net is foolish because you’re betting against human ingenuity and creativity.

Of course this new technology raises profound challenges for many established companies. Skype, an internet telephony business (voice over IP), is as disruptive to the economics of the telecommunications industry as China has been to the global manufacturing sector. But that disruption is only going to intensify.
–Howard Weaver

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Justices hand victory to free speech online
Web Site can't be sued for the postings of others

That was the headline on a Mercury News story from Tuesday.

The story explains:
The Supreme Court unanimously concluded that federal law is clear on insulating Internet providers and Web sites against lawsuits for the inflammatory statements of others. The ruling does not, however, protect the original authors of defamatory material.

Thought I'd bring it to the attention of this group. We'll all eventually be dealing with this kind of thing, I think, from both ethical and legal perspectives. I'd be interested in your comments/thoughts.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Current TV's Pro-Am model
for user-generated content

They call it VC2 (for viewer-created content) but in fact the hundreds of video productions on Current TV can also be recognized as another form of citizen journalism. Here, as we've discussed in earlier postings, the emerging model is the "Pro-Am" construct, where volunteers supply the content, but professionals select it, shape it and ultimately determine what makes the cut. Importantly, Current goes out of its way to help viewers succeed as video producers, including extensive online tutorials.

Here's a taste of the interview at, featuring Robin Sloan:

[W]e make decisions in a spirit of collaboration, taking cues from the [viewer feedback] on the site, but acknowledging that the responsibility for a good, informative product is ultimately ours. What that often means, practically speaking, is that our amazing VC2 team will work with a producer to polish a piece before it goes on air. A lot of what you see on TV is literally a mix of organic uploads and professional polish.
–Howard Weaver
Living history in North Carolina

If you missed this link on Romenesko today, E&P reported on an ambitious joint effort over the past week by The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh.

We teamed up to produce a 16-page tab section, published Friday in both papers and the Wilmington Star-News, and additional reporting on what's known as the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, a long-buried chapter on the successful white supremacy movement in North Carolina whose champions included both our newspapers. Josephus Daniels, who bought The N&O in 1894, was one of the leading architects of the Democratic Party's campaign to seize back control from a coalition of Republicans and Populists. The 1898 story has become a current event in North Carolina because of the publication of a 500-page report by a state commission, released this year. Among the commission's recommendations: that newspapers in the state acknowledge their role. We had considered a special section before the final report came out, but the recommendation cemented the notion.

Because of the newspapers' role in this history, we hired an outside writer to do the main piece (author and historian Tim Tyson), The Observer's Eric Frazier tracked down descendants of black and white participants in the 1898 events and both papers did supplemental stories. The E&P piece focuses on the editorial page apologies that coincided with the news stories. Both The N&O and Observer, which offered the section and a one-page summary to newspapers across North Carolina, are getting numerous requests for additional copies and generally positive comments from readers. A common refrain, even from native North Carolinians: I never knew this.

To see the work on our sites, click the home page links above or go here for The N&O's "Ghosts of 1898" page.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another view of the
future of newspapers

Michael Hirschorn has a piece in the Atlantic Monthly online exploring the future of newspapers that's worthwhile for a couple of reasons.

First, it's an intelligent and provocative take on how journalists and newspaper might adapt to changing media dynamics to turn liabilities into assets. Despite occasional moments of amusing myopia and ignorance (AP video as a "breakthrough" effort?) it's smart and well reasoned.

Secondly, it leads and concludes with references to EPIC, the futuristic mocumentary that predicts the demise of MSM at the hands of Googlezon, et al. And EPIC, as you may know, is the product of our own Matt Thompson (deputy online editor at the Strib) and Robin Sloan, who really ought to be working for McClatchy himself.
–Howard Weaver

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Is this the generation
called to save

About 11 years ago, working on McClatchy's strategic plan for internet publishing, I left Manhattan to interview Jim Wilse in New Jersey. I got on the train in Times Square and got off in Star-Ledger Plaza. I wondered even then if there’d ever be another time when newspapers were powerful enough to etch their names thus on the civic landscape.

In Chicago Friday for a meeting with our MCT partners, I waited for an elevator in the lobby of Tribune Tower and felt an even more powerful, more foreboding question about our place in the scheme of things.

Have you seen the tower? Modeled after Rouen Cathedral in France, the Tribune’s headquarters stands as an icon for Chicago and the newspaper world. The 36-story tower grew from a 1922 competition seeking nothing less than “ the most beautiful and eye-catching building in the world.” Col. McCormick surely did not doubt that his newspaper deserved that. As if to punctuate its grand, self-confident style, the building incorporates stones from famous locations around the world – the Alamo, the Coliseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China. Apollo 15 obligingly brought back another from the moon.

And today, of course, the fate of the 159-year-old company the gothic tower houses is very much up in the air. The marketing of Tribune Company is the biggest in a continuing series of seismic events that have rattled media companies of late. Dow Jones sold six newspapers, and Copley is trying to sell seven. The New York Times sold its television stations and the Boston Globe may be in play. Belo eliminated its pension plan, Cleveland and San Jose added to the growing ranks of laid-off journalists. Akron and Contra Costa decided they could do without executive editors.

More and more, it looks like we are going to be the generation called on to save American journalism. It’s a nice honor and all, but it’s not going to be easy.

In fact, it will be brutal, as the sad litany of recent events well illustrates. McClatchy hasn’t escaped unscathed, either, and we know there’s more pain to come. Revenues continue to erode, undermining the business model our traditional operations were built on. If we make a lot less money, we’ll have to spend a lot less, too.

And that leaves fewer resources for the crucial fight at hand. “Business as usual” isn’t possible, and “journalism by attrition” – doing everything 10 percent less well than we did it yesterday – is inadequate.

How do we handle that?

Partly by reaching out on new platforms and in new channels. Partnerships are sure to play an increasingly important role. We can be even more relentless in expense savings, negotiate better rates, learn to share content more regularly. Although people are working hard and productively, we all know we can manage to a higher standard.

Most fundamentally, we need to reinvent the way we do things – where we focus the resources we have, how we manage our newsrooms. If you were starting from scratch today, would you build a newsroom exactly like what you have now?

That's a question we should be asking all the time now, adjusting operations constantly as the answers change.

Most importantly, we have to keep the mission at the center of decision-making while we adapt: how can we continue to hold government accountable, give voice to the voiceless, speak truth to power? How do we build community cohesion, inform civic debate, make life better for the average person? If we can answer those questions well, we're winning – no matter how hard the fught becomes.
–Howard Weaver

Thursday, November 16, 2006

New story form: the inverted inverted pyramid.

Try this on for size. (Andy Baio pointed to this in his excellent blog.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Blogs, transparency, objectivity and bias

We're all supporting blogs on our sites, in no small part because we hope that blogs will create more meaningful opportunities for true conversation between our newsrooms and our audience. Increased transparency of the sort created by such conversations, we hope, will prove a powerful weapon in differentiating what we do from the echo-chamber ‘journalism of affirmation’ practiced by what Richard A. Viguerie and other partisans are labeling ‘new and alternative media.’

But are we really prepared to have those conversations? And are we prepared to answer the questions our audience is increasingly asking?

One thing I hope is now clear: Reader largely don’t know or care about the steps we on the news side have taken to maintain our objectivity. They don’t see a distinction between the editorial pages and the news pages, and they largely don’t distinguish between columnists and reporters. Most of all, they don’t trust the careful lines we’ve drawn to maintain objectivity. Rather than seeing those lines as journalistic standards, they instead suspect they just convenient shields we use to hide our biases.

Leading up to the election, the reporter behind our most active news blog found himself mired in just that sort of vicious circle. His audience was large and dedicated. And overwhelmingly skeptical. Rather than valuing his contributions more because he was objective, many argued that his refusal to disclose his personal leanings made them trust him less. The left-leaning readers saw bias favoring Republicans, the right-leaning readers saw bias favoring Democrats. And while many of us may see that as proof that he was doing his job, the end result is that both groups said they found the blog less relevant and less trustworthy. Yes, it’s a select group. Yes, it’s a partisan group. But do we honestly believe that such skepticism isn’t found throughout our audience?

Last spring, Michael Kinsley grappled with the problem and suggested a middle way: Ditch our claims of objectivity and instead just stick to the facts. Here’s a quote:

Abandoning the pretense of objectivity does not mean abandoning the journalist's most important obligation, which is factual accuracy. In fact, the practice of opinion journalism brings additional ethical obligations. These can be summarized in two words: intellectual honesty. Are you writing or saying what you really think? Have you tested it against the available counterarguments? Will you stand by an expressed principle in different situations, when it leads to an unpleasing conclusion? Are you open to new evidence or argument that might change your mind? Do you retain at least a tiny, healthy sliver of a doubt about the argument you choose to make?

Kinsley’s complete Slate essay can be found here.

As our reporters, particularly those covering politics, wade deeper into the conversational world of blogging and other two-way media, these questions seem impossible to avoid. Sure, we could attempt to steer clear of these ugly issues by keeping news reporters out of our blogging plans. But we won’t be solving any problems that way, we’ll just be ignoring them. Kinsley’s solution is probably overblown. All journalism can't be opinion journalism. But some sort of more aggressive transparency certainly seems to be called for.

Top newspaper reporter
heads for the web

From Jay Rosen's PressThink blog, this story about a top, Pulitzer-wining investigative reporter from New Orleans who left the paper and plans to explore the web.

This is John McQuaid. And this: Path of Destruction, a book about what Hurricane Katrina did to the Gulf and why. In 1997 he won, with “Path” co-author Mark Schleifstein, the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the highest award in the craft of enterprise reporting. It was for Oceans of Trouble, a series on the decline of global fisheries. Washing Away is also McQuaid. That’s the famous 2002 series for the Times-Picayune on Hurricane preparations (again with Mark Schleifstein.) It predicted the floods and failures of 2005. McQuaid is a proven craftsman in a demanding form: explaining a big, complicated story that is hidden from normal view. In this two-part Q & A, (the rest is tomorrow) he explains how it became impossible for him to remain at the Times-Picayune and continue to practice his craft. “My investigative job was eliminated, and I was told that the focus was on everybody pulling his or her weight to put out the daily paper.”

I'm not sure about Rosen's ambitious plans for a national network of journalists and citizens joining to produce enterprise stories and investigations. But I am pretty sure there's productive ground to plow in what he refers to as "Pro-Am" journalism, where professionals guide the work of contributors. This is essentially the model of the widely successful South Korean Ohmynews, which attracts huge audiences and is said to have swayed national elections there. (The English language, international version is here.) Nieman Reports had devoted a whole issue to citizen journliasm, unfortunately in pdf only) that includes good background on how Ohmynews works.

Could a couple of journeyman editors working with scores of web amateurs cover one of your community zones? Has anybody tried it?
–Howard Weaver

Saturday, November 11, 2006

What a mogul thinks
about the L.A. Times

One of the most captivating subtexts in the current turmoil surrounding our industry is the apparent interest selected billionaires are expressing in buying marquee newspapers.

This is new.

David Geffen buying the L.A. Times would be substantially different than Brian Tierney heading up a consortium to purchase the Inquirer. Tierney's bunch borrowed a lot of money to buy the Inky, and as Dean Singleton has pointed out. it's not much more fun to work for your bankers than for Wall Street. If he wanted to (he wouldn't) Geffen could simply write a check; and no matter how he structured the deal, he wouldn't have the cash flow pressure that operating on borrowed money brings.

I won't presume to know what Jack Welch thinks about when he ponders buying the Boston Globe, except this: he lives in Boston and obviously loves the place. Maybe that adds motivation.

Geffen thinks local ownership of the Times would be good for L.A., too, and I suspect he also figures he already knows a thing or two about building audiences. A writer at LAWeekly last week described what he said Geffen was telling friends:

Now I'm told Geffen is starting to plan what he intends to do to the paper once it's his ... He plans to staff – more like stuff – the paper with name writers and journalism stars. (Of course, he'll raid The New York Times, where Frank Rich and his wife, Alex Witchel, are his good friends and occasional overnight guests. So are Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi. So are a lot of literati.) He'll demand quality. He'll ratchet up the Web site (even though he hates how prohibitively expensive it is to do that). He'll figure out a way to bring in Latinos as readers ... Geffen hates how boring, badly written, inconsequential and pedestrian the L.A. Times’ editorial and opinion section is. He thinks nobody reads it. He knows nobody talks about it. Most of all, he wants his newspaper to be talked about.

Now, we'd all like a plan that started with hiring more staff. But looking beyond that, think about where this seems to be headed. Brand-name, high-profile buzz. Online extension. Quality. Reaching new demographics.

Not boring.

People at the L.A. Times already know doing those things would help, of course. So do we. But far too often, we let notions about things we "have to do" get in the way of doing things we really believe could move the needle on building audiences and creating communities.

Since you can't just layer on expenses to hire Frank Rich and Nora Ephron, you'd have to stop doing something else. And wouldn't you be better off creating our own stars, anyhow, which might involve little more than giving some of your best people more room to maneuver? Do you have somebody in the paper regularly right now who does this? Show us where to find the best things she's done lately; point us to his column.

Where's the very best stuff at McClatchy? Who has something we just can't live without?
–Howard Weaver

Thursday, November 09, 2006

New touchstones,
enduring mission

We all learned to produce newspapers according to a set of touchstones and metrics that were refined and polished over generations. Success meant a bigger staff, a larger newshole, longer series, more prizes. You staffed and covered everything; running wire on any story within striking range was failure.

Much of that is history.

Some things don’t change. Let’s take it as a given that our mission isn’t different. We’re here to produce the journalism of verification: fair, accurate independent reporting that speaks the truth to power, holds government accountable, gives voice to the voiceless, builds community cohesion. We create and empower citizens. If that’s not our animating purpose, I don’t want to keep doing it.

But standing by ourselves in an empty room telling stories won’t accomplish that.

How do we reorient? What are the new touchstones? Nobody knows for sure yet, of course, but I have some ideas. I wonder if you do, too?

The most important involves turning our yardstick upside down: what matters is not just what we do, but also what people do with it. The educator who argued “I was teaching, but they weren’t learning” had obviously missed the point. So, too, the editor who tries to argue that her decisions were right but the readers didn’t care.

I’d propose this as New Metric Number One: grow audience, in whatever channel and on whatever cycle the audience dictates. Chase them, find them, embrace them, serve them, capture them.

And how about this for Number Two: accept that news is an interactive, collaborative process these days. The audience is your partner in every significant respect, helping shape your decisions and contributing their own voices.

Along the way, we’ll learn the proper weight to attach to other touchstones: engagement; personality; excitement; non-generic ideas and assignments; humor, whimsy, buzz; star quality, brand-name performers; multiple channels and tools.

We will learn how to attach even more value to the tremendous capacities we already have: potent, narrative storytelling; tough-minded independence; levelheaded judgment; non-partisan detachment; fearless, agnostic investigations; deep community roots and understanding.

Any ideas about what else to include in amongst the new touchstones? You could add them as comments here.
–Howard Weaver

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Hyper-local hero

Photo by Bob Christy/Kent State

Rob Curley
has gotten a lot of good press for his success at newspaper websites, but none better than the profile now online at Fast Company. Here's a typical observation:

... then along comes Curley, unburdened by pieties about "how we've always done it." Unlike previous ink-stained generations, he and his mostly young charges practice journalism with software code, video, podcasts, audio, slide shows, blogs--whatever works. Multimedia storytelling comes as naturally to him as satire did to Mencken. Likewise, interactivity: The notion of a newspaper as a conversation rather than a lecture doesn't strike fear in Curley, the way it does some newspaper purists. It's exciting, full of promise.

And although that may seem a little super-heated, there is much to like about the way Curley approaches the business of employing digital tools to extend the work newspapers do. Importantly, one clear focus is on satsfying the information needs of audiences, not just doing what we've always done in different forms. I liked this explanation from Curley:

"Most people still think of a newspaper Web site as a digital version of what went on the press last night, but that's a small part of what we do," Curley says. "I want a site to be so cool and important to people that they talk about it the way you talk about having a great park where you live. It's a local amenity."

–Howard Weaver
So just what is the
Gannett Information Center?

Most of the fanfare yesterday about introduction of the Gannett Information Center centered on the CEO's memo introducing it as "a way to gather and disseminate news and information across all platforms, 24/7. The Information Center will let us gather the very local news and information that customers want, then distribute it when, where and how our customers seek it ... The Information Center, frankly, is the newsroom of the future ... it will be platform agnostic: News and information will be delivered to the right media - be it newspapers, online, mobile, video or ones not yet invented - at the right time. Our customers will decide which they prefer."

Much of that will sound familiar to those of us who gather here to write and talk about what we're doing to accomplish many of those same goals. We don't have a new name or a plan to roll it out in one-size-fits-all across newsrooms, but there's a lot to like about what Gannett is saying.

There's a detailed FAQ posted on Romenesko that you ought to read. The best reporting so far is at Wired News, where they focus on the effort to incorporate distributed reporting ("crowdsourcing" is the term Wired uses) to involve readers in newsgathering efforts.

I have heard Gannett editors express concern in recent months about at least one aspect of the plan. The company says changing the name from newsroom to Information Center recognizes that "[w]hile news remains our preeminent mission, other information – especially local information – is increasingly in demand. Calendars, recommendations, lifestyle topics as well as neighborhood level stories are all new elements..." In early stages of their discussions, at least, there were plans that some editors thought extended the newsroom into areas more akin to advertorial, or outright advertising activity.

Please take time to get up to speed on the Gannett moves, and please share new information about what they're doing and how it's being received in newsrooms. We want to learn all we can – pro and con – to help navigate our own transformations.
–Howard Weaver

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Imagining the future
(and the present)

One of my favorite authors (William Gibson, Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition) had an op-ed piece in the NYT about what we can learn from George Orwell about imagining the future – and describing the present, as well.

I don't know that this bears in any direct way on the subjects we usually address here, but I was intrigued and wanted to share this. Here is the link, and here's a great sample:

It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret.

In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician and corporate leader: the future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.

–Howard Weaver